Barack Obama: America's Savior or Judas Goat?
President Obama and members of his administration observe the U.S. attack on Osama bin Laden's compound (AP)
The May 1, 2011 assassination of Osama Bin Laden has conferred new prestige to Barack Obama's presidency and of course, his poll numbers are bound to go up. His ‘gutsy” decision and the success of the Navy SEALs operation has become a history-making moment defining his presidential legacy, much to the chagrin of his Republican detractors and right-wing pundits. It’s quite interesting that the covert action has taken place within a week of the President releasing his "long form" birth certificate, as the wild cacophony of the “birthers” and Donald Trump the “carnival barker” became an increasingly absurd distraction. Many of Obama’s supporters felt the birth certificate decision was needless capitulation to crazy conspiracy theorists who will never accept the legitimacy of Barack Obama simply because he is African-American. The cloud of fabricated propaganda and distortion was so extreme that even CBS Face the Nation host Bob Schiefer stated that there was an“an ugly strain of racism” underlying Trump's courting of the birther movement.
Many Americans seem unable to move beyond seeing Barack Obama through a compulsive reactive filter of race. Rush Limbaugh may not be a birther, but he can’t bring himself to give Barack Obama any credit for his leadership or any role he played in bringing Osama Bin Laden to justice. The bold decision to target Bin Laden inside Pakistan is certainly confounding birthers, as they will be forced to spin more elaborate conspiratorial delusions to ease their own cognitive dissonance. Their (temporary) silence is deafening right now. On the other hand, many of Obama’s supporters on the left are confounded by their own perception of Barack Obama as a symbol of change. They feel deeply betrayed on progressive causes like a public option or single-payer national health plan, extensions of the Bush tax cuts, gun control, environmental regulation, expansion of the war in Afghanistan and many other issues. (To be fair, Obama expounded his views on Afghanistan during the 2008 campaign, but current critics probably didn't listen carefully enough to his speeches.) It seems on both sides of the divide, Obama has become an enigma, as identity politics obfuscates the realities of a human personality attempting to navigate powerful special interests that inevitably weigh on the office of the President and his administration.
Barack Obama: America's Savior or Judas Goat?
Judas Goat: noun 1) A goat that is trained to lead other animals to being slaughtered, to the point where the Judas goat is allowed to pass safely
Since his historic inauguration on January 20, 2009, I’ve observed Barack Obama’s presidency with a perceptive analysis that has almost felt like unveiling a mysterious prophecy. Two years into his term, Barack Obama’s public persona, gravitas and his poll ratings look vastly different than what most of us might have expected from the exultant optimism surrounding his election. With tremendous criticism and disillusionment from liberal and progressive supporters and a mid-term election “shellacking” by Republicans and the Tea Party movement, Obama seems to be operating from an obscure no-man’s land where no one seems to know or recognize the charismatic leader who made so many grand promises in the name of hope.
In 2008 my friend Andrew P. Jones published his brilliant book, Barack Obama: America’s Savior or Judas Goat: The Diary of a Mad Black Voter. He wrote the book while living as an expatriate in South Africa, keenly observing the elections and being fascinated by the prospect of America electing its first Black President. While the concept may have seemed unlikely in 2005, Obama’s 2008 campaign awakened many people to the idea that the United States is changing and perhaps entering into a new “post-racial” era. Indeed, the inauguration itself was a mass event that the vast majority of Americans openly celebrated as a historic transformation. But Andrew’s book was written as something of a warning to Americans to not confuse Barack Obama as a symbol of racial achievement with the actual constraints of Barack Obama as a human being contending with overwhelming forces beyond his control. Barack Obama the man could end up inadvertently compromising and selling out key aspects of his own progressive agenda, because in the euphoria of electing a Black President his followers could be caught unaware of the dangerous pitfalls of politics and pragmatic policy decisions.
In 2011, the question of whether Barack Obama is really “America’s Savior or Judas Goat” is more prescient than ever. So many people, liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, feel deeply betrayed by Obama on many issues. From health care and a public option to gun control, the environment and energy, Obama has disappointed vast numbers of his supporters and abdicated many of his campaign promises. It seems that Americans – and perhaps African Americans in particular – are gradually awakening to dealing with Obama apart from being a symbol of change, but as a real politician, with personal weaknesses and actions that belie his lofty rhetoric. During the 2008 campaign, Andrew Jones was trying to get Americans to ask these very questions, even before that extraordinary historical inauguration day. He was encouraging everyone to be a mad Black voter - to pressure their elected representatives and to demand the changes they seek.
A remarkably far-sighted thinker, Andrew sought to stimulate a broad-based discussion with his ideas, so he sent copies of his book to a wide range of people on all sides of the political spectrum, including John McCain, Rush Limbaugh, Jesse Jackson, Hugo Chavez, Fidel Castro and of course, Barack Obama. He didn’t really have an agenda; he simply wanted to cut through illusory public perceptions and elevate the dialogue around the potential and meaning of an Obama Presidency.
Barack Obama: America's Savior or Judas Goat
Diary of a Mad Black Voter
Andrew P. Jones © 2008. Black Earth Press, Johannesburg.
Andrew was a brilliant journalist and television producer, a truly insightful, talented and intelligent man. But the world has lost a great light, as sadly, Andrew committed suicide on October 20, 2010. I believe something has died in all of us who knew Andrew, and something deep and profound in our humanity. Andrew is not with us to help raise the right questions as we confront the paradoxes of Obama’s presidency and the challenges of a world reeling from oil spills, nuclear contamination, economic uncertainties and revolutionary conflicts.
I cannot explain in words what my extraordinary friend Andrew meant to me. Shortly after I first met him, Andrew scooped the South African media and international press agencies with an interview with Dr. Wouter Basson, detailing the CIA’s involvement with South Africa's apartheid chemical and biological warfare atrocities. Beyond his serious political views, Andrew was bright, funny and warm, a great pleasure to be with. He was a virtuoso violinist who played heavenly music daily for the pure joy of his art, and it was oddly beautiful to see a Black man so thoroughly entranced in the classical genre. On certain beautiful, clear sunny days Andrew would take me on short flights around Johannesburg, as he was thrilled to share his skill as an aviator after earning his pilot’s license. His son Cochise and my son Morris were the same age and played together and became childhood buddies. Andrew's wife Kubeshni was a very kind friend who worked together with me in designing media promotional material for the South African Gender Commission. Andrew and I worked on scripts and treatments for SABC (South Africa's main public broadcaster) and we spent hours in his home editing suite or at the Congress of South African Trade Union's (COSATU) media department. I knew Andrew for more than 10 years and I often sought his advice about virtually all of the personal challenges, achievements and setbacks I experienced.
In honor of Andrew, I would simply ask that people continue to confront the questions and paradoxes of Obama’s presidency, as these questions really represent are our own American paradoxes, our own dilemma in this rapidly transforming world. Our leaders are an extension our active involvement with government, and the voices of democracy are precious, whether in America or the Middle East or Tibet or Cote d’Ivoire or Zimbabwe. If a movement toward more critical, grass roots participation in politics were to manifest in 2012 and coming elections, I know my friend would be smiling, as if his cautionary message was received and understood. I would also ask that we open our hearts and extend loving compassion to everyone who may cross our life path, because we never know what someone may be struggling with, or what difference we personally can make.
Shocking and tragic end to activists' incredible life
by Brian Wright O’Connor
Andrew Philemon Jones didn’t just play the violin, he made it sing. Horsehair bow flying over the strings, resin rising like smoke, he’d walk around the room, coaxing notes and chords from the fragile shell that came at you in a wall of sound.
Throughout the performance, his eyes would peer out over the lacquered wood, gauging the effect of his solo symphony as his digits ran up and down the fingerboard. A wry smile completed the picture of Andrew in his glory, provoking with music before setting down his beloved violin to provoke you with ideas.
In all the years I knew Andrew, he was a gentle soul – angry at injustice towards humanity but possessing a great love towards humans. News of the manner of his death in South Africa came as a shock. In late October, after an argument with his estranged wife – the mother of their three young sons – Andrew left their office, returned with a handgun, and fired one bullet. The shot went through her shoulder. He pulled the trigger a second time. The gun jammed. Andrew killed himself after she fled from the room. He was 58 years old.
Andrew had battled demons but demons could hardly explain or condone such a violent end.
Friends and family who attended his funeral in Johannesburg, the city where Andrew had started a new life after leaving Boston in 1995, were similarly shocked. His wife, Kubeshni Govender Jones, was sufficiently recovered to attend the services, as were their boys – Cochise, Sicelo, and Ayanda.
Many Bostonians may remember Andrew as the driving force behind the Greater Roxbury Incorporation Project (GRIP) – the movement for the secession of Boston’s African American neighborhoods into a new municipality. The 1986 referendum campaign attracted national attention and embarrassed the Flynn administration, which mounted an aggressive campaign to defeat a ballot question seen as a vote on the quality of City Hall’s governance of Boston’s black community.
The idea for black self-governance was not a rebuke, however, to the South Boston-born mayor who made racial reconciliation a theme of his administration. It came to Andrew during a stint as an ABC News field producer covering a town hall meeting in Vermont, where the notion of self-determination, deeply stamped into the character and landscape of rural New England, struck in Andrew a resonant chord.
It just seemed to Andrew like the right thing to do. “The right of a people to self-determination cannot be denied,” he often said. “It’s as American as apple pie.”
Working with urban planner Curtis Jones, Andrew launched the campaign in 1985. By the following year, the pair had come up with the name “Mandela” for the municipality in honor of the imprisoned South African leader.
Faced with the hope of self-rule on one hand and predicted financial disaster on the other, voters rejected the question by a 3-1 margin in the midst of national news coverage of the bid for black self-determination.
Andrew was “crushed” by the loss but acknowledged that GRIP should have been hatched at kitchen tables in Roxbury rather than over linen table cloths at the Harvard Faculty Club. Joyce Ferriabough, who ran the opposition campaign, respected Andrew’s passion but questioned his judgment. After hearing Andrew grumbling about Flynn’s “plantation politics,” Joyce confronted him.
“How do you want your ass-kicking?” she asked. “Over easy or well done?”
Andrew just laughed. “You had to hand it to him,” said Joyce. “He had a sense of humor.”
Andrew had first come to New England as a child of the segregated Creighton Court projects in Richmond, Va. – a violin prodigy plucked from the banks of the James River and sent by the program A Better Chance to the elite Phillips Exeter Academy, where he was a varsity football player and wrestler and played in the school orchestra.
Andrew loved competition. He thrived on full contact – physical and political. In music, it probably explained his love of Beethoven, the sweeping contrasts and plunging moods of a score in constant struggle.
After graduating from Exeter in 1970, he studied at the New England Conservatory of Music, but concert halls and recording studios couldn’t contain his searching mind and restless spirit. He got a master’s degree in journalism from Boston University in 1982 and set out to use the media to change the world. Or, as a more seasoned Andrew put it later, “I switched from one form of entertainment to another.”
The inevitable clash occurred when ABC sent an executive to the network’s Prudential Tower suite to advise bureau employees, who had long complained about strange fibers in the office air, not to talk to the press about asbestos dust falling from the ceiling. Andrew laughed at the man in the suit and denounced the network in public.
The end of Andrew’s network producing career gave rise to a successful run as an agent provocateur seeding intellectual sedition through documentary films. In segments for public television stations around the country, including many first aired on Boston’s WGBH-TV, Andrew told the story of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, captured the growing pains of Russia in the first gasps of post-Soviet life, and conducted pioneering interviews with the reclusive leaders of North Korea.
He broadcast reports from Indonesia, Vietnam, Japan, Jordan, Malawi, Angola, Mozambique, Brazil, Mexico and Zimbabwe. He picked up a New England Regional Emmy and scores of film awards along the way. His segments aired on NBC, Black Entertainment Television, the British Broadcasting Corporation, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the PBS Network and Russia’s TASS News Agency.
When leaving Russia after his last trip to Moscow, security stopped him at the airport gate, suspecting that the black American with the Homey the Clown haircut had illicitly obtained the expensive, 19th century violin in his possession. A burly guard came to escort him to a private room for questioning.
Andrew held up his hand. “Now wait a minute, fellas,” he said. “Just give me a chance.” Andrew removed the instrument from its battered case and tightened up the bow. Cascading notes from Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D Major spilled from the strings. Andrew smiled his smile. A crowd of spectators, drawn by the bravura performance, applauded. The apparatchiks shook his hand and let him board.
In all his travels, Andrew did not just report history, he participated in it as an unabashed advocate, unafraid to show his political stripes. Hours before filming the first salvo of bombs falling on Baghdad during the first Gulf War in 1991, he was playing violin as a guest musician with Iraq’s national orchestra.
In 1989, Andrew interviewed members of Manual Noriega’s government hours before Special Forces troops assaulted the Panama leader’s barracks headquarters. Leaving Panama City with his precious video, he came upon American soldiers engaged in a firefight and barely escaped strafing machine-gun bullets when they turned their weapons on his approaching vehicle.
In 1995, Andrew left behind his U.S. producing career and a teaching post at Northeastern to move to South Africa, Nelson Mandela’s homeland and a society busy re-inventing itself.
He was one of the first black men to earn a pilot’s license in the republic. On the media front, he turned his critical eye to the faltering promises of the ANC government, which brought political but not economic empowerment to the masses of poor blacks still living in townships. He produced programs for South African television and in the course of his work met Kubeshni Govender, a talented media professional who helped launch their own company, Black Earth Communications.
After marrying and starting a family, Andrew and Kubeshni ran a successful media and production business, interrupted at times by Andrew’s focus on a crusade to protect “reproductive choices for men.” His “Fathers Bill of Rights” campaign grew out of his own bitter experience as a father forced to pay child support for a daughter born in the 1980s whom the mother and the courts would not allow him to see.
Andrew’s decision to force the issue in a 2003 Massachusetts Probate Court appearance led to a 40-day sentence at the Suffolk County House of Corrections for refusing to pay arrearages. Typical of Andrew, jail-time proved to be more educational than punitive, opening up his eyes to the reality of the prison-industrial complex and the sometimes whimsical power of the law.
In the dedication to his provocative 2009 book, “Diary of a Mad Black Voter,” Andrew offered special thanks to the judge and prosecutor who put him behind bars “and ignored everything I had to say about freedom of choice, justice, liberty, father’s rights, the illness of my sons, the safety of my family, and dignity. For had you not done so I would have been cheated out of the most special 40 days and nights of my life.”
The book, a searing examination of the Barack Obama candidacy as either a redemptive opportunity for black America or a cruel illusion, was based in part on his perceptions of the ANC’s failure to bring real change to the struggling poor of South Africa. In writing the book, Andrew thought back to his cameo role playing boxing promoter Don King’s aide in the movie “Ali.”
Zelig-like, Andrew was in Maputo, Mozambique, at the time of the 2001 filming and found himself in front of the cameras.
“One night, Michael Mann the director decided to replace 30,000 black Mozambicans, who were supposed to be spectators watching the ‘Rumble in the Jungle,’ with cardboard cutouts flown in from Hollywood,” wrote Andrew.
“My thought was ‘This is deep.’ All these people replaced just like that by cardboard figurines that actually looked better than the people did in the final movie. So that’s when it hit me that all of us regular people – black, white, yellow, whatever – walk a tightrope between what is real and what isn’t in our media-drive society. And at any time ‘mediarchical’ forces can replace any of us with cardboard cutouts.”
Andrew struggled against forces most people took for granted. He questioned everything.
Reflecting on Andrew’s life, Kubeshni recalled her husband’s belief in “Gaia,” the concept of Earth as a living organism on which mankind has become a threatening rather than benign and integrated presence. “Despite his reverence of Gaia – the living spirit of the planet – he came to believe that his way in life was to fight for everything all the time,” she wrote.
“In adopting this stance, he missed out on the blessings that were his from the start. I pray that our boys are always able to pause and still their emotional beings long enough to hear the tone of the universe, to realize the sound of peace and love that we are born with despite the trials that life will bring us.”
The last major work of Andrew’s long career as a political and media gadfly was a feature film completed just weeks before his death. The final scene was shot in the same cemetery where his body was cremated.
The film left Andrew frustrated because he had no luck finding a distributor willing to release it.
That failure came after he had come close to fulfilling a long-held dream of media self-determination. Black Earth Communications had won a valuable satellite TV license from the Botswana Telecommunications Authority to launch Black Entertainment Satellite Television.
But financing troubles scuttled the effort. “Andrew,” said a friend, “was a visionary but not a businessman.”
Meanwhile, Andrew’s marriage had faltered.
Darkness closed in. The end came after Andrew penned a final message.
“The illusion of death is that it’s final,” he wrote. “It isn’t. There is life after death. Life’s greatest illusion is that the conscious mind resides inside the body. It doesn’t. The truth is that we are avatars.”
If so, then Andrew is still playing that violin, sawing out notes for heavenly hosts, mortals, and avatars alike, his eyes peering across the strings, provoking, searching, and ever restless.
Brian Wright O'Connor's article was reprinted in its entirety from the Bay State Banner .